Rory Kennedy’s Oscar-nominated Vietnam Documentary Draws Fire from Journalists and her own On-Camera “Experts,” including CIA Veteran
By Frank Snepp, January 18, 2015
Rory Kennedy, daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy, has scored an Oscar nomination for her PBS-backed documentary “Last Days in Vietnam” about the evacuation of the Saigon embassy in April 1975.
But two of her key interviewees, backed by journalists who were in Saigon during the evacuation, are challenging the film’s objectivity and its portrayal of Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the 1973 ceasefire and helped shape Vietnam policy for the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The former Secretary of State was interviewed extensively for the documentary but was allowed to make allegations and self-serving remarks without any balancing perspective from Kennedy or anyone else.
Jim Laurie, former NBC correspondent in Vietnam and one of Kennedy’s interview subjects, has delivered a cautionary letter to her, co-signed by other American reporters once based in Vietnam. It expresses concern about her handling of key events, including the breakdown of Kissinger’s ceasefire.
I am another of her featured “experts” who has faulted her treatment of the eyewitness testimony she got from me and others.
As an ex-CIA agent and the agency’s last strategy analyst in Vietnam, I was interviewed at length by her production team and appear prominently in their final cut. My familiarity with how the war ended is reflected in two books I have written about it, Decent Interval and Irreparable Harm. I have also appeared in many other documentaries about it and related national security issues.
But the film Kennedy produced eliminates or mutes nearly everything I said that reflects poorly on Kissinger and his last proconsul in Vietnam, Ambassador Graham Martin.
With Kissinger’s acquiescence Martin suppressed vital intelligence about our allies’ weaknesses and dismissed early warning signs that should have jump-started our evacuation planning. But what I told Kennedy about all this, based on my experience as Martin’s chief intelligence briefer and my contacts with the CIA’s best sources, wound up on the cutting room floor.
Kennedy also ignored the corruption and failed leadership in Saigon that doomed our allies to defeat. Indeed there is barely a mention of the country’s flawed leader, President Nguyen Van Thieu, whose regime Kissinger supported.
Thieu’s own tawdry departure from Saigon, in which I was directly involved, goes unacknowledged.
Instead, Kennedy edits her film and her interviewees’ comments to support an interpretation of Saigon’s defeat — one championed by Kissinger — which places primary blame on the U.S. Congress, home-grown anti-war sentiment, and cutbacks in already useless and redundant aid for Saigon.
Kissinger’s own failings, and the shortcomings of the ceasefire agreement he negotiated, receive as little attention as the timidity and botched decisions of the South Vietnamese government
Kennedy’s treatment of the evacuation story is equally blinkered and one-dimensional. She focuses her narrative on a handful of military officers who ferried evacuees to the U.S. rescue fleet offshore on the final day or who received Vietnamese who escaped by boat or chopper on their own. The images are often spectacular but tell us little about what was done to evacuate Americans stranded at the embassy or elsewhere in Saigon..
Her coverage of the so-called “black airlift” that took place in the preceding days, in defiance of Ambassador Martin who refused to concede defeat, is even less balanced. Her primary focus is on a U.S. Army captain who admitted on camera that he knew little about what his embassy colleagues were doing in this effort. She edited his comments to make it appear that he singlehandedly organized an Argo-type operation that rescued many worthy Vietnamese from certain death.
In fact, by his own acknowledgement, he was involved in smuggling onto outgoing aircraft self-described deserters from the South Vietnamese military whose departure may well have helped hasten the unraveling of government forces.
The same officer is also allowed to reinforce Kissinger’s claim that “broken promises” on Capitol Hill were responsible for sending the South Vietnamese down to defeat. His comments, though heartfelt, were based on no special knowledge of, or exposure to high-level policymaking or intelligence.
While Kennedy may have been looking for a way to turn the evacuation into a final tribute to American military prowess in Vietnam, she’s done so at the expense of too many Good Samaritans who were not in uniform.
In keeping her lens so narrowly focused, she shortchanges State Department and CIA personnel who risked their careers and their lives to spirit truly high risk Vietnamese out of harm’s way without the Ambassador’s approval.
Her most astonishing omission involves a failure even to acknowledge the seventy or more Americans who were killed or captured while trying to do right by our allies during the last weeks of the war.
Among those she ignores are American civilian and military personnel who died in the crash of a huge cargo aircraft devoted to rescuing Amerasian children – a tragedy that chillingly underscored the hazards of a poorly planned pullout; an ex-CIA officer who was captured and tortured to death by the victorious North Vietnamese after attempting to save local friends and former colleagues; and two Marines who perished in the final bombardment of Saigon and whose remains were later repatriated by the filmmaker’s uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy.
Maybe Kennedy was concerned that acknowledging their sacrifice would detract from the picture she paints of a few U.S. military stalwarts “rescuing” the evacuation from the depredations of defeatists on Capitol Hill.
It is one thing to provide a cross-section of opposing opinion about an event as chaotic and controversial as the collapse of U.S. policies in Vietnam. It is quite another to favor, through selective storytelling views of partisans like Henry Kissinger who are peddling an agenda.
The 90-minute film debuted at the Sundance film festival a year ago, garnered critical praise during a limited theatrical release last summer, and is set to air on public television stations next April as part of PBS’ The American Experience” series.
It is one of a number of retrospectives planned for coming months that will mark the 50th anniversary of first massive U.S. troop deployments in Vietnam, and the 40th anniversary of Saigon’s collapse.
The concerns I expressed to Kennedy in two memos are echoed in the letter which reporter Jim Laurie delivered to her last fall. It was drafted by Arnold Isaacs, former Saigon correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and author of a first-hand account of Saigon’s collapse, Without Honor.
He posted his letter on a website maintained by former Vietnam war correspondents, including Laurie, and picked up endorsements there.
I learned about the letter only after it was circulated.
Among other things, Isaacs objects to Kennedy’s use of footage of American anti-war protests, which had largely ended by 1975, to create the impression that they were instrumental in Saigon’s final defeat.
“Letting a false history take root in the public mind,” he writes, “would not just be a disservice to historical truth, but would damage public understanding of issues that are pertinent to important policy debates today.”
He faults Kennedy for not apportioning blame equally, between the North and South Vietnamese, for ceasefire violations that destroyed the flawed peace agreement negotiated by Kissinger.
He also criticizes her for presenting the Ford administration’s final aid proposal for Saigon as offering “a genuine chance to rescue South Vietnam from defeat,” and Congress’ rejection of it as a betrayal of our allies.
In Isaacs view, Kissinger and his supporters may have seen the proposal simply as a bait-and switch ploy, “a way to put the blame entirely on Congress for South Vietnam’s defeat and not on their own mistakes.”
In a written response to the letter, which Isaacs later related to me, Kennedy stated it was too late and too expensive to make any major changes in her documentary even as she actively promoted it as an Oscar candidate.
In written response to me she admitted having omitted key State Department and CIA officials who had rescued Vietnamese in imminent peril due to their American connections. She tried to justify this by claiming that military personnel were “charged with effecting the logistics of the evacuation” and “were faced in the last 24 hours with the kind of split-decision moral questions that you and your fellow CIA and State Department officers had been struggling with for months.”
What this statement overlooks is that the “logistics of the evacuation” was every man for himself in Saigon’s last days, and that “split-decision moral questions” confronted us all, civilian and military, right up to the end.
Kennedy also claimed in her response to me that the “reactions” of unnamed “historians” had somehow helped “clarify” the harmlessness of her omissions.
“We did, based on the reactions of some historians,” she wrote, “attempt to clarify what they saw as omissions that could potentially create misinterpretations that could rise to level of factual error.”
As for her uncritical treatment of Kissinger, she insisted that “the film we were making wasn’t about who did or did not deserve blame for these events but rather what happened once these events became inevitable, and how men react when faced with an inevitable tragedy…”
The trouble is that she allowed Kissinger and certain military personnel to assess blame for what happened, without any factual balance.
Below you will find:
Two lengthy critiques of the documentary which I wrote and addressed to Rory Kennedy.
Kennedy’s response to me.
Arnold Isaacs’ letter to Kennedy, delivered by Jim Laurie.
Links to some largely positive reviews of the film.
My first critique of the film, emailed to Rory Kennedy and her producer, Keven McAlester, October 22, 2014; updated as “open letter,” January 8, 2015):
As a long-time broadcast journalist I am in awe of the artistry you and your team brought to the editing and selection of video for “Last Days in Vietnam.” And I applaud all that you have done to heighten public awareness of a little known moment in recent history. But as an ex-CIA officer who witnessed Saigon’s collapse, and as one of your principal interviewees, I am dismayed that you did not provide a less partisan picture of key events and the role played by many American participants.
In your effort to make space for newly discovered video, Henry Kissinger’s self-serving interview, and a U.S. army captain’s noble but limited role in the evacuation, you marginalized civilian and military personnel who contributed valiantly to the salvation of beleaguered South Vietnamese and taught us lessons vital to our understanding, survival and avoidance of future “end games” like this one.
Among your more serious omissions, you ignored entirely more than seventy Americans, most of them non-military, who died or were captured by enemy forces during the last weeks of the war while struggling to keep faith with our doomed friends and allies.
In my raw interview with you, and in my own account of Saigon’s fall, Decent Interval, which you purportedly used as a reference, I described the crash of the Galaxy C5A on April 4, 1975 that killed nearly half of the 313 passengers and crew, including forty-nine civilians, eleven Air Force personnel and seventy-eight of the Amerasian children they were escorting out of harm’s way. (Even now the figures remain uncertain because the passenger manifests were incomplete, and many bodies were too mutilated to be identifiable.)
U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin consented to this so-called “baby lift” – the first of several — as a ploy to quell “evacuation fever” among American journalists and civilians in Saigon, and in an effort to elicit Congressional sympathy for additional aid for the Thieu regime. The giant cargo aircraft developed mechanical trouble shortly after takeoff and slammed into rice paddies near Tan Son Nhut air base. For more than two days, embassy officials and personnel from the Defense Attaché’s Office (DAO) sifted through the wreckage for the limp little rags that had once been infants and for what was left of their dead escorts, who had paid a higher price than any of us for trying to do the right thing by the Vietnamese.
Yet nowhere in your documentary do you vouchsafe one word about these heroes, and the children they were trying to save.
In my book, I told of an ex-CIA agent named Tucker Gougleman who returned to Saigon in mid-April to help evacuate Vietnamese military and intelligence personnel with whom he had worked during my own first tour in Vietnam. He failed to insure his own evacuation and was seized and tortured to death by the North Vietnamese.
I recounted the story of a CIA colleague who was captured at Phan Rang by the North Vietnamese as he was helping allied troops fend off an attack in mid-April 1975. He remained in enemy hands under bleak conditions for many months, until well after Saigon’s fall.
I reported how Paul Struharik a U.S. consular official, eight American missionaries and an Australian civilian were seized in Ban Me Thuot when NVA General Van Tien Dung overran the city and launched the final drive on Saigon. Struharik and his comrades remained in captivity until secret negotiations freed them six months after the ultimate Communist victory.
Your documentary makes no mention of any of these Americans or the suffering they endured on behalf of our allies, far in excess of anything that any of the rest of us had to face.
And then, of course, there are the two Marine guards, Lance Corporal Darwin Judge and Corporal Charles McMahon, who were killed during the final bombardment of Saigon, their bodies abandoned where they fell, to be retrieved only a year later through the initiative of your uncle, Senator Ted Kennedy. For all of your evident solicitude for what our Marine Guards and their uniformed comrades accomplished at the end, these martyrs go unacknowledged in your narrative – a surprising omission given the role the Senator played in returning their remains to their loved ones.
From my own experience in television news, I know the allure of the single dramatic interview that seems to sum up all that you are trying to get across. I know the thrill of stumbling on exclusive footage that despite dealing with a sidebar issue is just too “exclusive” to remain a sidebar. And I believe that partly explains why you turned one-time Pentagon and State Department official Rich Armitage and former Army Captain (now Colonel) Stuart Herrington into poster boys for the evacuation, to the exclusion of so many others who deserved our admiration and thanks.
Despite his more recent role in outing CIA agent Valerie Plame, I respect Armitage as I remember him from April 1975, and wrote about his exploits. He and a civilian colleague from the Pentagon, Eric Von Marbod, arrived in Saigon five days before the end to evacuate American-made aircraft, ships and hardware. They failed to a large extent. The North Vietnamese moved so fast that they captured enough of this materiel to keep them in business in Cambodia, Laos and along the Chinese border for many years to come.
Nor did Von Marbod or Armitage have any significant hand in orchestrating the covert exfiltration of Vietnamese prior to the final haul. Indeed Ambassador Martin feared their efforts threatened order in the city. But the scores of vessels, which Armitage “liberated” and sent to Con Son Island as Saigon collapsed, quickly morphed into a spectacle worthy of Exodus, as one of your interviewees described it. The extraordinary archival footage you uncovered shows countless Vietnamese navy personnel and civilians packed to the gunwales, fleeing their homeland rather than face the enemy. Armitage deserves praise for making the morally inevitable decision not to send these escapees back to South Vietnam.
But as one who has known him personally, I am certain he would object to having you celebrate his accomplishments in Saigon’s final days while ignoring those Americans who gave their lives or freedom in the same righteous cause. And I suspect Herrington would feel the same about the way you allow him to eclipse so many others who did as much or more for endangered Vietnamese.
Based on what Herrington told your interviewers, his role in getting evacuees out of Saigon before the final day involved a tranche of Vietnamese colonels, majors and captains whom he smuggled onto an outgoing aircraft, along with their families, despite their own stated concern that they were deserters. According to his own book and earlier interviews about the collapse, Herrington also helped assemble passengers for “baby lifts” subsequent to the original ill-fated one. Later, on April 29, by the Pentagon’s own account, he honorably performed his assigned job of policing Vietnamese assembled inside the embassy courtyard, and helping them onto outgoing choppers.
Drawing on the Pentagon’s after-action report, prepared soon after Saigon’s fall, I wrote admiringly of Herrington’s service, and the related activities of his immediate superiors, Colonel John Madison and Major Jim Kean. I tried to reach them all, and the Marine guards, when I was researching my book but was told by the Pentagon that none of its personnel was authorized to talk about the fall of Vietnam.
I empathize with the agony Herrington felt at not being able to get out the 420 Vietnamese he was guarding at the embassy in the evacuation’s closing hours. And as a journalist, I can understand your temptation to build on his emotional connection with one of them, Binh Pho, the college student who later escaped Saigon on his own and wound up telling his story for your cameras.
But Herrington, for all his virtues, is no stand-in for embassy colleagues who at often graver peril to life and career spirited literally hundreds of Vietnamese out of Saigon on black flights during the last weeks of the war. While embassy personnel, operating under the Ambassador’s direct scrutiny, faced instant professional annihilation for undertaking unapproved evacuation efforts in those final days, Herrington was protected by distance and several layers of supportive military bureaucracy at the Defense Attache’s office at Tan Son Hut air base. He could smuggle Vietnamese onto outgoing aircraft without the risks confronting any CIA or State Department official or senior military officer engaged in such “insubordination.”
And unlike Gougleman, Paul Struharik, or my CIA colleague captured up country, Herrington did not dig in and stay put in the end. In his interview he explains that his superiors ordered him and his fellow officers out of the embassy courtyard that final night, so he figured he had to abandon his last Vietnamese charges there.
It’s a decision I can understand. When the CIA ordered me out with the last CIA contingent, I obeyed. Having been intimately involved with our best Vietnamese agents, and having interrogated key prisoners under ghastly conditions, I knew I would be a rich and tempting target for incoming enemy forces.
But the fact remains neither of us was a model dead ender, not remotely on a par morally or in terms of raw courage, with Gougleman, Struharik or my captured CIA friend.
So how did either of us wind up front and center in the documentary while so many of the true heroes disappeared without a trace?
In Herrington’s case, there are obvious explanations — likability, an articulate presentation, and the coincidence of his having abandoned a Vietnamese who found his own way to your production crew.
Moreover, from the very moment the Pentagon began massaging its role in the evacuation, Herrington has been part of the narrative, and I say this out of no disrespect for him. When I left the CIA in 1976 to try to rally support for a belated rescue of abandoned Vietnamese and to correct the record Henry Kissinger had created, the Pentagon was already constructing a self-protective after-action report that featured, among other things, Herrington’s last minutes at the embassy.
You amplify this account by adding Binh Pho as his foil. But beneath it all is a thrice-told tale, a variation of the Pentagon’s long-standing version of what took place in the end.
It is a story that never loses its allure, in part because it is designed to corroborate those in the U.S. military and in Kissinger’s own camp who would rewrite the way the war ended for their own political or ideological purposes.
You have, I fear, been unduly swayed by this group. However you parse the subliminal message of your documentary – and it doesn’t take much, given your uncritical treatment of Kissinger — it comes down to this: while feckless legislators may have lost the war, or at least Kissinger’s “peace” by grounding the B-52’s and withholding aid to our allies, brave U.S. servicemen managed to redeem America’s Honor by rescuing the evacuation from these scoundrels.
In order to make this message stick, however, you’re faced with having to sideline those who present distractions or contradictions, be they the heroes of the baby lift, Gougleman, Struharik, the two Marines killed at Tan Son Nhut, or embassy civilians who worked their own miracles to “rescue” the evacuation.
Deft cutting, dazzling video and a brilliant soundtrack may help burnish what you’ve done, but the result speaks for itself.
How else to account for the fact that of the ten “mission types” you feature on screen, seven are from the military? And of the three civilians, Terry McNamara, consul general from the delta, had no direct knowledge of the situation in Saigon or elsewhere. His primary purpose in the film seems to be to reinforce the Pentagon/Kissinger line on an issue about which he has no expertise: the alleged supply shortages and Congressional parsimony that supposedly sank South Vietnam’s last best hopes of survival.
Elevating the military to a starring role in this drama is a feat even for a filmmaker of your skill. Throughout the “ceasefire” war, the Defense Attaché’s Office – with the notable exception of its (unmentioned) reports chief Colonel Henry Shockley — consistently underestimated Saigon’s weaknesses, overestimated its staying power and ability to absorb more aid effectively, dutifully parroted Martin’s propagandistic take on all the above, and thus helped set the stage for the miscalculations that led to the final disaster.
Moreover, as I pointed out in my raw interview and in my book, if there was any one figure in Washington adamantly opposed to a large-scale evacuation of Vietnamese in April 1975 it was Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger. There is a reason why the first Marine chopper he sent into Saigon on the final day – piloted by your compelling interviewee Gerald Berry — was tasked with hauling out Ambassador Martin. Schlesinger believed that with Martin out of the way, the evacuation could quickly be narrowed to American personnel only, and he would surely have had his way if the Ambassador had not stood his ground.
Yet you tell us none of this, apart from having me state the obvious on screen: that Martin’s change of heart on the final day allowed the Vietnamese evacuation to go forward. Beyond this, you reduce to invisibility certain key players who deserve as much credit as any of your military star turns, and certainly more than I do.
Your penchant for selectivity is especially apparent in the way you truncate the story of State Department officer Joe McBride, one of the three Vietnam-based civilian officials you feature among your talking heads, McNamara and myself being the other two.
Though it is barely apparent from what you put onscreen, McBride’s primary contribution to the black airlift was in linking up with fellow embassy staffers and colleagues from Washington to build a covert air bridge out of the country distinct from DAO’s. Herrington’s contribution, by his own account, was more narrowly focused, featuring Vietnamese military officers who chose to save themselves and their families rather than do their duty. And evacuees favored by other DAO personnel often were drawn from the same problematic pool, thus heightening Martin’s concern that an overhasty evacuation would hasten the obliteration of Saigon’s already disintegrating army.
McBride & Company had as their intended (and often unintended) wards the Vietnamese relatives, friends and employees of embassy officials, intelligence personnel, and the vast business, diplomatic and straggler community in Saigon.
To move this mountain, they needed covert communications, and pick-up and delivery arrangements unique to these diverse target groups. As time went on, they had to venture deep into Saigon’s increasingly mean streets, since few of their charges were nestled close to the well-fortified DAO compound. And they often had to act without much help from the rest of us.
Included among their evacuees were a number of my own Vietnamese associates whom I had no time to spirit out because of my deepening fixation with sorting out enemy intentions.
Among those who paired with McBride in his enterprise were such unlikely action figures as former Ambassadorial aide Ken Moorefield, State Department officer Lacy Wright and displaced consular officials who’d already taken unspeakable risks in rescuing Vietnamese from embattled areas up country.
As I noted in my book, two of their number, State Department officers Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone, began their crusade in Washington, working tirelessly to keep the Schlesinger lobby from shutting down a Vietnamese evacuation altogether. When it appeared in mid-April that they might lose that battle, they slipped away and grabbed a flight to Saigon. There, operating without the Ambassador’s sanction, they arranged — almost singlehandedly — the covert departure of many Vietnamese associated with present and former U.S. Foreign Service officers.
Their efforts helped to refocus the black airlift on truly high-risk evacuees – a number that, despite Herrington’s inexplicably low-ball on-screen estimate, ran into the millions.
McBride was at the center of this, and could have provided unmatched insider detail, and assured due credit for his colleagues, if you had given his interview more breathing room. You didn’t.
His big moment, as you would have it, came on the final day when he assumed the role of emergency bus driver and braved street mobs to deliver Vietnamese evacuees to the Saigon docks. That was an heroic feat in itself and blessedly you let him describe it.
But even here, your evident determination to keep your lens narrowly focused resulted in zero mention of others who conducted similar kamikaze runs on April 29. Lacy Wright and Ken Moorefield, among many others, repeatedly risked their lives in making emergency bus and van pickups around the city and ramming past raging citizenry to deposit equally panicked Vietnamese at various drop points.
By omission you also reduce to non-person status USIA chief Alan Carter and a CIA colleague of mine, a crippled victim of polio described in Decent Interval, who joined me in mounting a Paul Revere operation during the war’s final weeks. In his myopia Martin had spread word through the local news media and ex-pat community that the ARVN would hold fast and there was no need for hasty self-evacuation. Embassy and DAO staffers who had been declared “non-essential” were thus dawdling at the gates, ignoring outgoing commercial flights, and there was a danger that when the inevitable happened, there would be no seats left on any aircraft for non-“round-eyes.”
My colleagues and I tried to rectify that by secretly briefing anyone who would listen – American and foreign journalists, businessmen, visiting lawmakers, foreign diplomats, embassy families — on why they should disregard Martin’s false assurances. Our message: get the hell out now while the getting is good, and take your Vietnamese friends with you. In the aftermath many American evacuees thanked Carter and my CIA colleague for persuading them to leave when Martin was still promising peace in our time.
During my interview I credited the Deputy Defense Attaché (General Richard Baughn) with having organized some of the first sub rosa evacuee runs to the Philippines, using newly emptied cargo planes to make delivery of undocumented Vietnamese. I also decried his having been fired by Martin for his trouble. You retained my encomia for him. But you shaved my remarks about civilians responsible for equally important game-changers.
At one point, for instance, you let me point out on screen that by early April more than 500,000 refugees were rolling south towards Saigon, with the NVA right behind them. But you omitted my related comments about a decision made by CIA topsider Ted Shackley that saved Saigon from the ravages of this human Tsunami.
In early April, Shackley, who had been Saigon station chief during my first Vietnam tour, and who was back as a Presidential fact-finder, sent word to the Special Police Branch and the South Vietnamese military to bar entry points into Saigon against the onrushing refugees. That decision kept the city from being overrun by panicked humanity, and bought valuable time for Wright, Moorefield, McBride and other civilians – and indeed for Herrington and his boss, Defense Attaché, General Homer Smith – to pick up where General Baughn had left off.
Nor was Shackley the only CIA officer whose improvisatory instincts helped avert disaster. Though Station Chief Tom Polgar was overly solicitous of Martin on all matters relating to the pullout, he allowed one of his own deputies, Bill Johnson, to bend the rules dramatically at the end. Under Johnson’s imaginative guidance, more than 100 Vietnamese associated with a secret CIA radio station known as “Mother Vietnam,” which broadcast to the Viet Cong, escaped by aircraft to Con Son Island during the war’s final days and were later spirited away by freighter. This swashbuckling operation, accomplished amidst utter chaos with the loss of only one life, was arguably the best planned and executed of all the exfiltration efforts devoted to high risk Vietnamese.
I wrote about this operation and commended it as an example of how other “rat lines” might have been organized. You and your production crew gave it no notice and allowed your audience to believe that our Scarlet Pimpernels wore mainly olive drab.
During my interview, I explained how our overall evacuation plans had gone through various phases of Ambassadorial sabotage and improvised repair work by the rank and file. Under the mission’s original concept, the embassy was to have served as a temporary assembly area for a limited number of evacuees shuttled in by bus or helicopter from outlying chopper pads or collection points. Beneficiaries of this initial collection effort were then to have been moved by bus or Air America chopper to the docks, or to the main assembly zone at Tan Son Nhut, for airlift out of the city via fixed wing aircraft.
But Martin refused to let us paint “X”-marks or “H’s” on rooftop landing pads to assist incoming choppers, for fear it would signal defeatism, and only because CIA and State Department upstarts dared defy him, were these rooftops made ready to receive the scheduled Hueys.
It involved high drama, lots of chutzpah and ultimately saved many lives. But none of it made your final cut.
Martin was similarly resistant to any effort to compile a master list of potential Vietnamese evacuees, again for fear of sending the “wrong signal.” He was also concerned that any such list would have to include high-ranking military officers and political figures whose departure he refused to contemplate.
Once again grunts in the embassy and USIA chief Alan Carter tried to compensate by drawing up master lists behind his back. The effort never progressed very far because of Martin’s stonewalling. As a result, on the morning of the last day, we had no master list anywhere in the embassy of key Vietnamese deserving priority help in leaving the country.
In my raw interview, and in my book, I described this gaping hole in our evacuation plans (such as they were), and noted its effects on who got our help and who didn’t in escaping the country. It went unmentioned on screen.
On the morning of the final day, when communist artillery obliterated the runways at Tan Son Nhut and thus foreclosed the planned fixed-wing airlift, the embassy suddenly became Grand Central Station for thousands of Americans and Vietnamese clamoring to get out. No one had planned adequately for this contingency or almost any other.
Faced with this emergency O.B. Harnage and other Air America pilots, operating with my help and that of my CIA colleagues, began improvising, picking up people clustered at remote assembly points (including those hastily “prepped” roof tops) and ferrying them to the embassy, to Tan Son Nhut or directly to the evacuation fleet. They jump started the final evacuation long before Marine pilots aboard the fleet could even – literally – synchronize their watches to Greenwich Mean Time and local Saigon time. Had Harnage and his fellow CIA pilots not done the impossible, the final airlift would have foundered long before it did.
You do let me credit Harnage on-screen for landing on the roof of the deputy CIA station chief’s apartment building early that last morning. He thus became the prop for a famous photo op.
But spliced out of my narrative was the context I had provided – the fact that this scene was like countless others around the city up through mid-afternoon, April 29, 1975, during which time the CIA’s Air America, at mortal hazard, became the only salvation for hundreds of Americans and Vietnamese.
There were more splices as well, all seemingly designed to make room for the military guys you seem determined to portray as the cavalry arriving just in time.
In reference to earlier rescue efforts, you let me say on screen: “Young officers in the embassy began to mobilize black operations, meaning a makeshift underground railway that would be totally under the radar of the ambassador.” This would have been the perfect place to insert a shot of, or some remarks from McBride, since he was a “young officer in the embassy.” But instead you laid in, over my narrative, shots of US military personnel lounging in fatigues and then Herrington himself, and you let Herrington claim credit for what I was describing. He is heard to say: “People like myself and others took the bull by the horns and organized an evacuation.” I am sure he didn’t mean for his remarks to sound so self-serving, but your edits make it appear that he did.
Later, through similarly brusque edits you let Herrington and a Marine guard hijack your account of what was going on at the embassy on the final day. In fact they had no direct role in the desperate struggle those of us inside the embassy were waging to save key Vietnamese. And yet you let them speak for us, sometimes trivializing life and death events that were as horrific as anything either of them had faced.
Here’s what you allow Herrington, who arrived from DAO late that morning and who remained largely in the embassy courtyard, to offer about what the rest of us were doing to help the Vietnamese there:
“There was no hiding the fact that someone had let these people into this embassy. Was it people, Marine Security guards that kinda looked the other way? Was it American employees in the embassy who were doing, kinda, what we did, black ops, taking care of their own? We never got to the bottom of that, and frankly we never pursued it.”
And here’s Herrington again, on the same subject: “Each time a bird came in, here would go another thirty or forty people. But did the right mix of people get out? You know, who says these were the people who either deserved or should have gone out? At the embassy a lot of people that got out were good wall jumpers.”
To complete these dismissive flourishes, you let Marine guard Mike Sullivan tell the audience with a wry smile that he and his buddies ran cooks, dishwashers, tailors and “a few others” into embassy load lines, as if the desperate souls assembled there were passersby randomly plucked from the streets.
This choice of sound bites distorts the facts, and seems all the more arbitrary since you had plenty of more informed material to draw from. You could have inserted something from me about the on-going Air America airlift, or CIA efforts to locate and rescue its own. Or you could have given McBride a larger piece of the action here. Instead, you resorted to the old directorial trick of trying to keep certain star players “alive” by giving them prominence in a scene that really doesn’t belong to them.
Let me explain, as I did in unused parts of my interview and in my book, who these Vietnamese at the embassy were. To be sure, many were business or personal friends or even maids and servants of U.S. personnel. But just as often – especially on the final day – they were highly imperiled patriots who worked for the CIA, State Department and other U.S. agencies and who, unlike Herrington’s evacuees, had not tried to scurry to safety days before.
They were translators with intimate knowledge of our best sources and most valuable prisoners and defectors. They were embassy workers who could finger on sight Vietnamese favored by the CIA and State Department. They were top-ranking Vietnamese military and intelligence officers finally slated for evacuation after being held in place by Graham Martin, well beyond their capacity to change anything for the better.
And the people who were struggling to drag, lift or haul them into the embassy courtyard, with the help of Marine guards, were civilians, CIA and State Department officers. Every minute of every hour of that last day they were making the heart wrenching decision that Herrington lamented, about who would go and who would stay. Only unlike Herrington, they had to contend with an additional consideration – who had the secrets that could get lots of other Vietnamese killed.
Meanwhile the embassy building itself had become a seething sweat box, the air conditioning and elevators having stalled, the toilets clogged, food and drinking water non-existent, with countless Vietnamese packed in the halls, waiting to be funneled up the jammed stairwell to the roof-top pad. Many were sick or paralyzed with terror. The stench was suffocating. Any one of them could have pulled the pin on a grenade and blown us apart, because there was no security of any consequence.
The desperate radio calls from stranded Vietnamese agents of the CIA haunt my nightmares to this day. CIA Station Chief Polgar’s failed efforts to have his Vietnamese driver track down and deliver his own chosen evacuees still rend the heart. Our frantic efforts to rescue seventy of our key Vietnamese translators and many more abandoned employees of the CIA’s Duc Hotel are still premonitions of Hell.
None of this made your final cut. Indeed, based on what we hear from your chosen narrators – Herrington and Marine Guard Sullivan – none of it even happened.
You do let me say on screen that we wound up destroying countless classified documents that final day since Martin had refused to let us take such precautions earlier. I went on to point out in unused comments that we didn’t succeed, and that the North Vietnamese captured reams of classified files intact, thus availing themselves of an effective blood list that would enable them to identify and track down Vietnamese who had worked for us. I noted in my book that the survival of classified files was one of the unique obscenities of our botched evacuation planning. Not only did CIA and State Department officers, up country and in Saigon itself, fail to destroy classified documents that compromised our spies and allies, so did Herrington’s military colleagues at Tan Son Nhut.
NVA General Van Tien Dung revealed in his own memoirs that his army captured intact the entire classified archives of the South Vietnamese military command, which was overseen by the US Defense Attaché’s Office right down the street. An old intelligence comrade of mine has recently translated a report by Hanoi officials about what they did with those files: they used them to ferret out and eliminate real and suspected collaborators, defectors and so on.
Though you have Herrington speculate on camera about the horrors likely to be visited on abandoned allies, you wipe out of my on-screen interview any reference to the lethality of those files. Instead, you allow Marine guard Sullivan to comment whimsically on how he and his buddies were called in “to look at that classified document idea.” He continues in what is truly a scene from Alice in Wonderland: “So we went to every office and told them to start pulling stuff and piles and piles of paper began coming out and we began shredding.”
Not quite. On that final morning I saw Ambassador Martin himself pathetically shredding classified files by hand. CIA and NSA personnel used thermite grenades to try to blow up some of our most sensitive stashes – the thunderous explosions shook the building — and State Department officers handed half-shredded material to the Marines to burn.
They didn’t have time to follow through, in part because smoke and soot from the rooftop incinerators threatened to blind incoming choppers. Bags of classified trash – shown in your footage – were thus left unattended in the embassy courtyard. When the big military choppers began landing there around mid-afternoon, the downdraft blew open these bags, sending top secret confetti wafting into nearby treetops. The North Vietnamese later collected these bits and shreds, and eventually pieced them together to make their blood lists.
None of this made your final cut.
Arguably the most politically consequential of the black evacuation efforts mounted during the last two weeks of the war was the CIA operation to smuggle South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to Tan Son Nhut and out of the country. In the course of it, executed after nightfall on April 25, 1975, a handful of intelligence officers delivered the disgraced and recently resigned South Vietnamese leader through ravaged streets, past roadblocks bristling with trigger-happy stragglers, backlit by tracers and pulsing artillery out along the city’s perimeters, to an isolated tarmac for his own covert flight to oblivion.
Every Viet Cong and NVA cadre in the south was looking for the man and would gladly have blown him and his American escorts to a Confucian Valhalla had they located them. Every rival of Thieu’s, including Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, was trying to find and assassinate him, to make way for a power grab or last minute grandstanding of their own.
Since I had been handpicked to spirit Thieu to the drop zone, as his driver and absurdly underqualified bodyguard, I was eyewitness to this historic moment. I described that ride in my raw interview (and in my book) — the jangle of gold bars tucked away in Presidential suitcases, the boozed-up former supreme leader murmuring about smuggled artwork and earlier campaigns to the other American passenger in the bulletproof limo, CIA operative, General Charles Timmes.
When we arrived at the blacked-out flight line, Thieu thanked me for America’s sacrifice, and Martin and CIA station chief Polgar helped him up the stairway to the aircraft. Then I watched transfixed as Martin yanked away the stairwell as if ripping away the last umbilical linking us to two decades of unspeakable tragedy.
None of this made your final cut. I would have been content to hear anybody – it didn’t have to be me – acknowledge Thieu’s departure. But apparently, in your judgment, it was unworthy of note.
After my interview with you, I grew increasingly concerned about how it had gone, the unasked questions, the paring of detail, the avoidance certain issues altogether, and I sent your colleague, Keven McAlester, an email about the accomplishments of State Department personnel like Lionel Rosenblatt out of concern they would go unnoticed. I would have been willing to record voice-overs to make up for what we’d missed and to flesh out the role of civilians who had done so much to make the evacuation possible.
You did not to respond to my offer or even acknowledge it.
I know that you did contact Rosenblatt because he is mentioned in your end credits as the source of some of the visuals you used.
But nowhere is there any sound bite from him. You took his photographs, but not his perspectives on what apparently you had already decided would be the “U.S. military’s story.”
Nor were your editorial choices keyed simply to this story. The documentary you created was conceived and cut in such a way as to take the edge off facts unflattering to Martin and to your big-name “get,” Henry Kissinger.
With respect to Martin, I was surprised to discover that your favored military interlocutors have become experts on the ambassador with the passage of time. You have two Marine guards, Juan Valdez and Steve Hasty, ruminate about the Ambassador’s motives, and Herrington is seen offering rationales for him, as if Martin were a “tragic figure” (as Herrington recently described him to the press).
I greatly respect the fruits of honest research, and perhaps that’s what gave Herrington and the Marines their insights. But I can tell you from intimate knowledge of the famously secretive Martin that he would not have shared his mindset with God, let alone Marine Guards, except for some calculated purpose. And if Herrington had any prolonged exposure to him, I almost certainly would have known of it (and didn’t), since I occupied a very tight space with the old man.
Very tight indeed. For the last two years of the war I was his principal personal briefer. I seriously dated his daughter, and became part of his household. The CIA used me to spy on him, he used me to spy on the CIA station, and he had the Defense Attaché’s office spy on me – even to the point of eavesdropping – to make sure I wasn’t disloyal to him. I was caught up in a unique and often compromising relationship with Graham Martin.
And I can say with absolute certainty that he was about as “tragic” as Iago. As I noted in my interview and in my book, he was seen by the administration and by embassy colleagues as the next best thing to a B-52. He was handpicked for his Saigon posting precisely because he was as indifferent to the realities on the ground as Henry Kissinger, and believed that whatever they were, he could bend them to fit his needs by deceit or sheer force of will. Not only was he determined not to surrender Vietnam to the Communist “bastards” who had killed his son in combat; he was convinced that lies repeated often enough could create their own truth.
In short he was the perfect heir to the many like-minded autocrats who had preceded him in his position.
As I noted in an unused part of my interview, Martin advised his embassy staff early on, “We will not engage in any proctologic examination of the South Vietnamese body politic.” The message was clear to all: nothing about Saigon’s corrupt leadership, security problems in the countryside or the sad state of the South Vietnamese military would be welcome in the front office, or in reports to Washington.
Herrington’s colleagues in the Defense Attaché’s Office knew that Martin was a dissembler and fantasist, and both Herrington and I are still in touch with one of them, Colonel Henry Shockley, who was chief of the DAO’s reports section up until March 1975. As I pointed out in my second book about Vietnam, Irreparable Harm, Shockley secretly advised Congressman Otis Pike and his intelligence committee months after Saigon’s loss that Martin’s embassy had been a cesspool of corrupted intelligence. “The deadly combination of ‘can do’ and let’s not feed the hostile press,” Shockley declared, “had led well-meaning and patriotic officials to suppress even routine reports that indicated the operational readiness, the morale or the general capability of the armed forces was not what it should be .”
Later, in a letter to his former commanding officer in Saigon, Shockley elaborated:
“Washington level collection and reporting restrictions are one thing, but when the Ambassador deliberately attempts to deny information – not to a hostile press but to decision makers – the situation becomes worse. Ambassador Martin did just that….
“The reports on corruption of an ARVN unit in the Kontum area where an actual fox-hole strength of half of what was reported existed, where vehicle spares and tires were openly on the market, and where vehicles were seen hauling lumber to a commercial concern, led to a further restriction on reporting on these ‘political matters’ by DAO.
“The honest and heartbreaking concern over corruption and indifferent leadership that surfaced in a report after the fall of Phuoc Long [Province in January 1975] caused all such reports to be filtered through the Embassy where they never again saw the light of day.
“A December 1974 report that identified Ban Me Thuot as the first major target in the Highlands lay for six weeks in the Embassy awaiting approval for dispatch and then was not reported because it came from a ‘political source.’
“A DAO inspection visit of Regional and Provincial forces in MR III [the Saigon area] which reported widespread corruption, an indifferent and inefficient supply and distribution system, and lowered morale was changed by Mr. [Richard] Peters [Martin’s regional consular chief] on the say so of the local chief of Regional and Provincial forces…
“I can cite an additional twenty or thirty such incidents. My concern was that we were deliberately limiting the perspective of the Washington level decision makers. Several people have argued that it was a foregone conclusion that the RVNAF would not hold up over time. My view is if that were true it was not communicated to the field and was not reflected in DAO.”
I quote Shockley’s remarks at length here because they square with what I know of equally blinkered CIA reporting at the time, and the critique I set forth in Decent Interval (and in unused portions of my interview). They explain why Saigon’s precipitous collapse caught us so off guard. They also underscore the fragility, and indeed speciousness of the argument, favored by Kissinger and certain military memoirists, that supply shortages inflicted by Congress doomed the South Vietnamese to defeat.
That is gross hyperbole. Our own self-imposed myopia deprived us of the facts to make such a judgment and left us clueless as to the true causes and extent of our allies’ vulnerabilities.
Put simply, Martin’s manipulation of intelligence blinded us to the rot that was destroying Saigon’s will and capacity to fight and its ability to deploy effectively even the aid that was available. The Ambassador’s easy way with the truth also left us ill-prepared for the rapid disintegration of the South Vietnamese army and the urgent challenges of an orderly evacuation.
“In Vietnam,” Shockley concludes, “we lost our perspective and our objectivity… It is ironic, but had Vietnam not fallen so swiftly and ingloriously no one would have questioned the actions of the Mission.”
You do allow me to say on camera that Martin refused to accept that half of the South Vietnamese army had been destroyed when he returned to Saigon from Washington in late March-early April 1975. But you eliminate the context I provided – that this was vintage Martin, a prevaricator whose wishful thinking made it increasingly impossible for him to distinguish between his own fabrications and the truth.
You let Herrington tell us that Martin’s concern for panicking the Vietnamese is why he shortchanged evacuation planning. That is debatable. Martin was perfectly capable of sowing the seeds of panic when it served his purposes, as I pointed out in my book. Indeed, even as he was hammering Alan Carter, the USIA attaché in Saigon, for “overreacting” to the crash of the baby lift and tempting panic among his staffers, Martin was simultaneously spreading horror stories in the press, local and abroad, about the bloodthirsty North Vietnamese and their lust for slaughter, in hopes of stampeding Congress into approving another useless aid package for Saigon. If there was one sure way of tipping the Vietnamese population into panic, it was by howling publicly that the North Vietnamese were going to eat their babies.
The most serious Martin delusion was his absolute conviction that yet another round of negotiations would make an evacuation unnecessary. He became so convinced of this that he conjured a five-year economic plan for South Vietnam and sent it to Washington just three weeks before Saigon collapsed – another fact that emerged in my account, but was not preserved on screen.
The Ambassador was strengthened in this pipedream by my own boss, CIA Station Chief Polgar, who became mesmerized by cynically conceived disinformation from contacts at the French embassy and in the Hungarian and Polish truce teams in Saigon.
The struggle over whether to accelerate evacuation planning thus became a struggle for Martin’s mind.
That’s why, as I pointed out in my book, I twice pulled our best agent out of the Communist high command to update what we knew of Hanoi’s intentions. The first time was in early April (mentioned on screen). The second time came nine days later, as pressure was building in the Ambassador’s office to get rid of Thieu as a sop for the North Vietnamese, and as prelude to the installation of an ersatz neutralist.
On April 17, the day Cambodia was overrun, our very best Vietnamese agent confirmed to me that all the talk of a negotiated settlement was a sham, a smokescreen to throw us off balance, and that the Communists meant to be in Saigon within two weeks, and would bring both artillery and airstrikes to bear on Tan Son Nhut.
That last threat was no bluff. Just two weeks before, on the heels of the baby-lift crash, a South Vietnamese defector under Hanoi’s control had flown an air strike against the Presidential Palace just a few blocks from the embassy. The pilot’s postwar memoir revealed that he had also intended to bomb the embassy itself – I was on the rooftop at the time — but a technical malfunction had prevented that.
This airstrike and the C5-A tragedy made it abundantly clear that any airlift under hostile conditions could be suicidal, and that hostile conditions might include enemy airstrikes. (SR-7 surface-to-air missiles had also been spotted moving south, as Herrington notes on screen.) Moreover, radio intercepts and every other piece of intelligence indicated that NVA forces were barreling on towards Saigon and reinforcing en route, with no sign of any let-up or pause for negotiations.
Yet Polgar refused to let me disseminate my second report in normal channels on the misguided assumption that a negotiated settlement was just around the corner.
As a token of how wrong he and the Ambassador were – and how right my source was — on the night before the final day, just as he had predicted, disgruntled defectors flying for Hanoi bombed and strafed the tarmacs at Tan Son Nhut, inaugurating the final NVA drive on the city.
Only later did Polgar acknowledge that I had been right in sounding the claxons even as he and he Ambassador remained inattentive. After the fall of Saigon he told the CIA director: “the analysis initiated by Mr. Snepp… as well as his prediction for the second phase of the offensive and the subsequent military collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam have all turned out to be in accordance with the actual developments…”
I take no pride in this acknowledgement. It is a bitter, mocking reminder that I failed to do enough with the facts I knew at the time to save lives.
Up until the final moments of the war I continued to scrabble for intelligence to change the ambassador’s mind, so much so that I lost sight of the need to prepare for the evacuation of an old Vietnamese friend who had shown up in Saigon after many months with a child she claimed was my own. She said she would kill herself and the child if I didn’t get them out. The night before the last day, as I was again desperately searching for new intelligence sources, I missed her phone call.
That’s why I made the comment that you included at the close of the documentary, the one about my having lost sight of the fact that human lives were at stake that last minute before midnight. I mentioned this terrible episode in my second book, but could not bring myself to relive it in our interview.
But suffice it to say that I stand by the sentiment I conveyed. And I can assure you that the scramble for accurate intelligence came to have a special poignancy for me. I was therefore chagrined to find that what I had said about it in my interview got so little screen time.
Indeed, to the extent Martin’s delusions were mentioned at all, you have Joe McBride do the postmortem.
You let him say of Martin: “He’d been holding out hope that some kind of three-party solution could be worked out so that South Vietnam could continue with some kind of independence or autonomy and he was encouraged to think that this might be possible. But the morning of the 29th, he came to accept the fact that that wasn’t going to happen.”
I marvel at how much is lost in this truncation.
Quite apart from my own recollections and experiences, Martin himself acknowledged, in little noticed Congressional testimony after the collapse, that he should have done better by the intelligence.
After assuring a House panel headed by Lee Hamilton that the evacuation had been a “hell of a good job” and that Thieu had been “a very good leader” up until U.S. aid cutbacks, he turned to the issue of intelligence.
While claiming falsely that he had realized four weeks before the end that Thieu couldn’t survive, he argued that there had been a chance for some kind of last minute fix, the creation of an interim regime headed by a neutralist.
When one of the legislators asked about intelligence reports to the contrary, Martin stiffened.
“We did have information from a long-range penetration of the so-called COSVN, the Central Office for South Vietnam,” he conceded, “which indicated that regardless of all the other by play, the North Vietnamese were now determined to press for a military solution.
“Now, I hesitate to say this,” he continued, “but that report was not given that much credibility by the CIA station chief. It was not sent back by the CIA station chief in normal reporting channels. It was not until he was pressed by that officer who was in direct contact with this particular penetration” – Martin swung around and gestured towards me in the spectator’s gallery – “that this man was allowed to send it back through operational channels.”
Representative Hamilton demanded, “Who is that man?”
“Mr. Frank Snepp,” replied Martin, “the person who is in direct contact with the penetration.”
Hamilton glanced briefly at me, then turned back to the Ambassador. “That mid-April assessment concerning the North Vietnamese decision to push for total victory,” he continued, “did I understand that you saw that?”
“Yes,” replied Martin.
“You did not accept it as accurate?” Hamilton continued.
“I put considerably more credibility on it than the station chief did, as a matter of fact,” said Martin
Then, suddenly he checked himself, as if realizing he had said too much. He had. For, if as he maintained, he had credited my source why hadn’t he called for an accelerated airlift?
To dodge that one, he took a leaf from Kissinger and imputed inconsistency to the North Vietnamese themselves, claiming that they’d “changed signals” at the last moment “and appeared to shift suddenly to a military option. The possibility of a negotiated settlement was ruled out.”
I was stunned. Having just betrayed our most sensitive source, a man who had stayed behind, Martin was now attempting to repudiate the source’s intelligence, which had been dead-accurate!
None of the Congressmen followed up, presumably for fear of being drawn further into classified territory. Martin then reverted to what had become his favorite pastime, scapegoating. He accused Polgar of rank insubordination for having evacuated his household belongings without permission, thus allegedly spreading the poison of defeatism, and he noted that Kissinger had ultimately been responsible for everything.
“I have never forgotten,” he observed slyly, “that in the end the policy was never mine.”
I recounted all this in my second book, thus making clear to anyone who wanted to follow up that there was plenty of material on record about the lethal and duplicitous game that had been played with intelligence at the end.
You and your production crew ignored these cues and, and except for McBride’s brief comment and my remarks about the alarmist report in early April, effectively skirted the subject, as if intelligence hadn’t really mattered to how the evacuation unfolded.
Nor did you devote much attention to another critical component of the Fall-of-Vietnam story — the South Vietnamese leadership itself.
Apart from an inapposite photo of Martin and Thieu laid in over a sound-track reference to the final day of the war, by which point Thieu was long gone, the Saigon regime was missing in action as far as your version of the truth is concerned.
Like your failure to acknowledge the deaths and sacrifices of civilian personnel, this is a dizzying omission. If we are to understand why the disintegration of South Vietnam caught us so flat-footed, it is important to know how its leaders and its American-trained army handled key challenges facing them.
In a brief video montage, you reduce their initial response to the final NVA offensive to a blur of Vietnamese bodies hurling themselves onto evacuation aircraft up country, as disembodied narrators track the destruction of Military Regions 1 and 2 in March and early April 1975.
The true picture was even less flattering. The South Vietnamese commander in MR 2 abandoned his post in the highlands at first whiff of the enemy, and fled to the coast. The collapse of his command unleashed a tidal wave of refugees across the central part of the country and opened the way for NVA General Dung and his forces to strike northeast out of Ban Me Thuot into the very heart of MR 2, cutting South Vietnam in two.
Meanwhile, as one of your interviewees, Navy Captain Dim Ko, obliquely notes on screen, Thieu panicked. What happened next is not shown or described: In a mounting frenzy, without warning the embassy, Thieu issued a flurry of conflicting orders to his MR 1 commander, leaving him no time to re-deploy his forces or withdraw military dependents bivouacked close to the front lines. The North Vietnamese capitalized on the confusion and pushed crack government units back upon civilian encampments, thus setting in motion the unraveling of all South Vietnamese forces in the northern part of the country.
This had nothing to do with specific supply shortages or the collapse of the latest U.S. aid proposals. This was simply abominable soldiering by an army fatally dependent on air power, riven by corruption, and hostage to a supreme commander, Nguyen Van Thieu, too fearful of his own generals to cede them enough initiative to do their jobs, or to overthrow him.
As Colonel Shockley realized, corruption had become a cancer that left no margin of error for anything else that threatened Saigon’s survival. ARVN troop rosters were so bloated with “ghost solders” – absent recruits, still on the payroll, who had bribed their way out of actual military service — that it was impossible to know the true strength of fighting units. Air and artillery commanders were too jealous of their hardware and spares, and the blackmarket profits they supported, to risk putting them in harm’s way. ARVN logisticians had become so fearful of having forward stockpiles overrun that they kept them far from the front-line troops who needed them. Quartermasters couldn’t, or wouldn’t, level about what supply shortages they faced or how they could be remedied, lest they be forced to account for what they had already sold off for personal profit.
This was the army confronting 140-160,000 highly disciplined, impeccably motivated North Vietnamese regulars, operating under a ruthless totalitarian regime, in the final months of the war. It is a wonder that the collapse didn’t come sooner.
You and your production crew barely acknowledge any of this. Indeed, from what you tell us of our allies they might as well be blameless victims of cynical defeatists back in Washington.
I believe there is a reason for this, and here we get into the heart of the matter, what I view as the real problem with the documentary.
You said in recent press interviews that you are out to tell the story of heroic Americans on the ground. Why, then, did you inject Henry Kissinger so prominently into this mix? He is hardly a neutral figure, hardly “a man on the ground.” The moment he is center-stage, this documentary takes on a political dimension that you seem unprepared to acknowledge, let alone address.
We are long past the time when Kissinger must be worshipped as a final authority on anything or accepted at his word. Much has been written about his duplicity, particularly with respect to Vietnam, and only a partisan or an overly generous soul would let him have his say without allowing for countervailing views.
Once Kissinger became part of the mix, objectivity should have dictated some give and take about what he did. Instead, in an extended section of the documentary, you let him and President Ford’s press secretary, Ron Nessen, make the most outrageous insinuations about supply shortages, and Congress’ alleged bad faith. Even more astonishing, you use Consul General Terry McNamara from the delta, where little of the key fighting occurred, and a Marine Guard once stationed there, Steve Hasty, to corroborate what they say.
According to Hasty: in the last days of the war “supplies had been cut off and you could see the armaments dwindling.”
Now enter Terry McNamara: “We were under the terms of the Paris Agreement committed to resupplying the South Vietnamese. They lacked simple things like barbed wire and bags for sandbags. They were rationing their artillery shells because they were running out. The aid bill was being held up in Congress and the military support. The materiel was not coming.”
Finally comes Kissinger, putting the acid on the cake. He intones solemnly that among President Ford’s concerns was “the honor of America – that we would not be seen at the final agony of Vietnam as having stabbed it in the back.”
So there you have it – Kissinger and your own select “experts,” including a Marine Guard, summing up why Vietnam went down the tubes.
Colonel Shockley would surely find it perplexing. I find it selective, very politicized story-telling.
Were you interested in a more balanced perspective, we would have heard something about the Saigon leadership and whether it was worthy of our continued aid and sacrifice. But, as I indicated above, there is a black hole in your narrative. Nowhere do we get an unvarnished glimpse of the “betrayed” ally whose “back” Congress supposedly perforated.
And then there’s Martin. Having generally soft-soaped him, making him a “tragic figure” rather than a monumentally flawed one, you never have to question Kissinger’s judgment in leaving him in place. In his heart Kissinger knew Martin was a monstrous mistake. When Mike Wallace interviewed me back in 1977 about my first book, Kissinger told him off-camera that Martin was “batty.” Imagine that: just two years after the collapse Kissinger was prepared to acknowledge that his proconsul in Vietnam had been off his rocker. But such was Kissinger’s awe-inspiring gravitas that Wallace quoted the “batty” remark without revealing the source.
You don’t even go that far. You replay Kissinger’s self-promoting pronouncements without any pushback. Having wiped from your pallet any sign of the nearly seventy Americans killed or captured in the last weeks of the war, you apparently see no need to pull Kissinger up short when he breezily dismisses the failure to evacuate the last U.S. Marines from the embassy rooftop (until literally the last minute) as “another horrendous screw-up.” I am not sure anyone is entitled to such flippancy when other “screw-ups” during the final days (as during the war itself) cost so many Americans their lives or freedom.
But I knew objectivity was truly fleeting when you brought Herrington back on screen to pronounce on the Paris Accords and our obligations to South Vietnam. As the camera tightens on a letter from Nixon promising a U.S. response in force if the North Vietnamese are bad guys, we hear Herrington say: “He promised to President Thieu if the North Vietnamese were to substantially violate the terms of the Paris agreement the United States would respond with full force, in other words re-enter the war.”
Hey, folks, let’s get real. As I am allowed to point out on camera – once again without any of the context I also offered – the accords were “a masterpiece of ambiguity.” That’s because they were designed rationalize a final U.S. troop withdrawal short of a final U.S. victory. To that end, they were masterfully constructed to hide that fact that we had not defeated the North Vietnamese, and therefore were going to have to bequeath to our allies a fatal fact of life — the presence of the 140,000 NVA regulars right in their midst, in scattered portions of the country, some close to vital population centers.
For the same reason – the non-defeat of our adversary — Kissinger was never able to create an enforceable mechanism to keep the NVA from resupplying their expeditionary forces or making good their losses. (Thus, contrary to what we hear in your documentary, from President Ford no less, there wasn’t an NVA “invasion” in the end; Hanoi’s forces had been in the south and metastasizing for the entirety of the ceasefire period.)
Moreover, in order to get the South Vietnamese to accept this untenable bargain, Kissinger didn’t tell them what he was negotiating on their behalf until he’d already committed them. As I point out in Decent Interval, Thieu didn’t even have a full copy of the Paris accords on the day of the ceasefire in January 1973.
Nor did Congress know of the promises Kissinger had secretly made to both sides, feckless promises that he knew hinged on legislative approval — large dollops of aid to the North Vietnamese to keep them pacified and focused inward, and continued open-ended aid to the South. On top of this, he encouraged – or at least permitted – Martin to mislead Thieu about the possible return of U.S. air power.
So Thieu never had an incentive to put his house in order or rid himself of his most corrupt generals and courtiers – because he assumed the U.S. would always be around to pick up the pieces.
He never understood what Herrington and the rest of us should know: that Congress in response to overwhelming popular opinion – it’s known as “the will of the people” — had ruled out any renewed U.S. bloodletting in Indochina by approving the Cambodia bombing ban legislation and the War Powers Act in mid-1973, a half year after the Paris agreement was signed.
Nor did Kissinger and his coterie ever genuinely believe in South Vietnam’s survivability anyway. In a recent conversation Colonel Shockley told me of a revealing meeting he had had with Kissinger’s top aide, Winston Lord, right after Nixon’s resignation in August 1974. After Shockley expressed skepticism to him that the South Vietnamese army could withstand a major NVA onslaught, Lord replied that it didn’t matter, that the purpose of the Paris accords was simply to assure the United States breathing room to get out of Vietnam without embarrassment. I reported the same top-level cynicism in my own book about the fall of Vietnam. That’s why I titled it, ironically, “Decent Interval.”
Recently released Nixon White House tapes condemn Kissinger with his own words. They confirm that the true purpose of his “peace” was to enable us to crawl out of Vietnam, standing up, and only just barely.
In one excerpt, recorded on August 3, 1972, just a month before I returned to Saigon for my second tour – and six months before the Paris accords were unveiled — Kissinger tells Nixon: “If a year or two from now, North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it’s the result of South Vietnamese incompetence… So we’ve got to have a formula that holds this thing together a year or two, after which – after a year, Mr. President, Vietnam will be a backwater. If we settle it, say, by this October — by January ’74, no one will give a damn.”
Thus when Kissinger says in your documentary his objective was to promote “a period of coexistence which might evolve as it did in Korea, into two states,” he is simply blowing smoke, and hoping you won’t know any better. Apparently he’s right. And to make it all feel so righteous, you end with Herrington claiming on camera that “the end of April 1975 was the whole Vietnam involvement in a microcosm – promises made in good faith, promises broken.”
No, Colonel Herrington, it was the culmination of a war born of Cold War myths, prosecuted on half-truths, and terminated, badly, in a fog of self-delusion. And if there were broken promises, it’s because Kissinger broke faith with the people’s representatives and kept them in the dark.
If there are lessons to be learned from the collapse, you give us only glimpses in your documentary. Though the list is endless, these are my stock choices: If you embrace corruption as your ally, you will fail. If you substitute wishful thinking for honest intelligence you will fail. If you leave sanctuaries open to your enemy, you will fail. And if the media persist in perpetuating the lies and illusions that created the nightmare in the first place, you will repeat it, and the inevitable result will be another rush to the choppers and every man for himself.
There is one other blind spot in your narrative that deserves comment since it involves a final failed effort by Kissinger to avert humiliation in Vietnam, including his own.
During the last week of the war he received what he claimed was an assurance from Moscow that the North Vietnamese would refrain from attacking Saigon long enough to allow for a minimal evacuation effort aimed at rescuing Americans. I remarked on this in my interview (as well as in my book) but dismissed it as a scam of the sort our best agent had mentioned, a ploy by Hanoi and its allies to keep us off balance.
As proof for the agent’s point, there was no coincidental pause in the NVA drive on Saigon, no deviation from the scenario that he had described in early April and again on April 17th.
Even if the Soviets had wanted to help us buy time for a limited, last-minute evacuation, North Vietnamese paranoia would have gotten in the way. Hanoi’s top leaders were as mistrustful of the Soviets as they were of the Chinese and would never have allowed Moscow to interfere with what had finally been a clear shot at victory.
Former Soviet Ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, spoke of this reported initiative in his own memoir, In Confidence. He put it in a context of exquisite ambiguity.
“In the critical days of Saigon’s downfall, which was turning into a flight by the Americans, Ford turned to Moscow for help. On April 19 [two days after the second CIA agent report predicting an imminent attack], Kissinger passed me a ‘highly urgent message’ to Brezhnev appealing to the Soviet government to help obtain a temporary cease-fire to save lives through ‘an uninterrupted evacuation of the remaining Americans and their remaining loyal South Vietnamese protégés.’ He confirmed that all Americans were at last getting out…
“On April 24 [the day before Thieu’s own departure] Brezhnev replied that the Vietnamese had informed him they would not impede the speedy evacuation of American citizens from Saigon and had no intention of damaging the prestige of the United States. They would proceed from the Paris agreement. Ford received this reply with relief.
“Two days passed without event, and on April 26 I received another urgent message from Ford for Moscow: the North Vietnamese had resumed shelling Saigon airport and the buildings around the American embassy in Saigon. Contrary to Hanoi’s assurances, Kissinger said excitedly, its actions constituted a direct premeditated blow to the prestige of the administration and to the president himself, for they were aimed at demonstrating that the Americans were leaving under direct North Vietnamese pressure. I drew Kissinger’s attention to the criticism in the Congress and in the media of the too prolonged withdrawal of the Americans from Saigon. The North Vietnamese advanced to the city, but they did not prevent the final evacuation from the American embassy by helicopters.”
Though Dobrynin didn’t say so, the scam had worked. Ford and Kissinger had been hoodwinked into believing there was time to spare (thus lessening any temptation to attempt a counter move even as Hanoi marshaled for the final assault predicted by our agent, on the timetable he had described).
Brezhnev’s assurance to Kissinger that the North Vietnamese “would proceed from the Paris agreement” was a sure sign that he took none of the talk of a last-minute “ceasefire” seriously, since there was nothing left of the Paris accords at that point.
Dobrynin’s own cynicism was apparent in his assertion that the North Vietnamese “did not prevent final evacuation from the embassy by helicopters.” Hanoi had no way of knowing that the bombardment of Tan Son Nhut and the city’s perimeters would not shut down the evacuation altogether. So this was a paean to restraint where none existed.
In fact what we got was the opposite. Mid-morning on the final day, a North Vietnamese radio message was intercepted that foretold a direct strike on downtown Saigon if the Americans were not gone by 6pm. When Kissinger received that message, he sent word from Washington that the fifty of us in the embassy who’d been nominated to be part of a stay-behind team were to be evacuated with all other Americans.
By nightfall, U.S. war planes had been secretly mustered out to suppress ground fire as the chopper-lift wound into its final hours.
Thus, in the end, Kissinger found himself in the unfamiliar role of the scorned suitor. The proposal he had put to Hanoi through the Soviets had been thrown back at him. Far from withholding a final “blow to the prestige of the administration and to the president himself,” Hanoi had subjected both to a spectacularly public humiliation. Instead of allowing the last Americans to depart free of “direct North Vietnamese pressure” as Kissinger had asked, the NVA had chased us from the city at gunpoint.
Nothing about the Soviet gambit showed up in your documentary. You confided to me that all the “stuff” about last-minute “negotiations” had proved too complex to be included.
Or maybe it was just too embarrassing to Kissinger.
On September 23, you called me to express regret that we hadn’t been introduced at the Los Angeles debut of your film, which had opened the previous Friday at my neighborhood art house. I had bought a ticket like all the old Saigon hands and Vietnamese in the audience, and after the screening I had listened with interest as the guest of honor, Colonel Herrington’s abandoned college student, Binh Pho, spoke about his experiences, and his regret that Herrington himself had not been able to fly in for a scheduled appearance like the one they had shared at the Sundance Festival last winter.
You seemed concerned that I might be concerned about having been excluded from Sundance and every “opening” since then, and you assured me that the film had already brought me the notoriety that you seemed to think I was looking for.
I was – well – taken aback. I had never expected to be included on your promotional calendar once it became apparent (from a DVD I had asked for) that the documentary had been given over to Kissinger-friendly views that didn’t mesh with my own interview, or book.
As for notoriety, my role in documenting the facts surrounding the fall of Saigon have already brought me all the notoriety – infamy, is more like it — that I could possibly bear, short of a fatal heart attack.
When I published Decent Interval, in 1977, the only available “truth” about the final days was the version conjured by Henry Kissinger and the Pentagon – the “Congress-stabbed-us-in-the-back”/military-to-the-rescue confection that you have reprised. My book was meant to correct the record, highlight the contributions of my heroic embassy colleagues, and generate enough “heat” to force somebody in authority to undertake covert or overt initiatives to help loyal Vietnamese we had abandoned.
I was the only eyewitness chronicler of Saigon’s collapse who gave even an honorable mention to the heresies Colonel Shockley had uttered to the Pike committee. His own military colleagues were so offended that they threatened to deny him his last promotion, and only after CIA Director William Colby personally spoke up for him was he ultimately granted a step-up in rank.
The U.S. government responded to my own disclosures with even less tolerance. Jimmy Carter’s CIA chief tried to have me brought up on espionage charges because of my book, and only after former intelligence colleagues from Saigon pushed back was I spared prosecution for allegedly spilling national security secrets. They insisted I had been scrupulously discreet in writing Decent Interval, which I had. The last thing I had meant to do was further endanger the Vietnamese we’d left behind.
The Justice Department took me to court anyway, alleging that the unauthorized publication of my book – even minus secrets – had done “irreparable harm” to the national security. The U.S. Supreme Court endorsed that verdict in 1980. Its landmark ruling – an unfortunate milestone in First Amendment/national security law –left me (along with all other national security employees and alumni, now including Edward Snowden and newly talkative Seal Team 6 stalwarts) subject to lifetime government censorship. The financial penalties rendered me destitute – literally – without a penny to my name.
The decision had an additional, even more insidious effect which remains with me to this day. As a result of it, had I written down the words I uttered on camera in “Last Days in Vietnam,” they would all have been subject to CIA approval, and even now I have to worry they might earn me jail time for contempt of court. (This very letter has been submitted to the CIA for clearance.)
All this, because I had told the story of Saigon’s collapse as I had witnessed it, without secrets – and without fear or favor to anyone, least of all myself.
Thus, your suggestion that you might help gain me some sort of recognition was fraught with a certain painful irony.
Though my foregoing critique of the film might be seen as a bid for wholesale revisions, that is not the case. I do believe that Kissinger ought to be placed in context if the documentary is expanded for PBS audiences. Certainly some deference should be paid to the Americans who lost their lives or their freedom in the final weeks helping our friends and allies. I would be happy if Colonel Shockley were granted a hearing, and if my own remarks about suppressed intelligence got some space. McBride’s own screen time should be expanded to allow him to comment on the contributions that his civilian colleagues made to the black airlift.
Were it not for the fact that you have converted this documentary into a platform for Kissinger, I would simply applaud politely and go about my business. But, once you allowed him to put his unchallenged spin on events that killed or devastated so many of my Vietnamese friends – and countless American ones — it would be a moral abdication not to plead for a little more screen time for the facts.
Regards, Frank Snepp
Rory Kennedy’s Response, forwarded through her producer Keven McAlester:
From: Keven McAlester…
To: Frank Snepp…
Cc: Rory Kennedy…; Lauren Prestileo [PBS’ WGBH, Boston]…
Sent: Thu, Nov 13, 2014 7:16 pm
Subject: Letter from Rory
Thanks again for your thoughtful response to the film. Below please find a letter from Rory, cc’d here–she didn’t have your email handy so I’m forwarding it.
Thanks so much for your letter of thoughts about and reactions to Last Days in Vietnam; Keven forwarded it to me, and I thought I’d respond directly.
I appreciate how much thought you put into your response.
I’d certainly agree with several of the main points in your letter: that many deserving heroes were not profiled in the film, including many whose lives were lost; that the full history and nuance of certain events is not fully explored; and that many actions of our main subjects (yourself included) were not used. I would say, however, that these issues are unfortunately the limitation of making a two-hour film about an extraordinarily complex series of events; the choice to highlight one thing means that something else will be simplified, edited, or left out. Our primary framework for making those decisions was that we wanted to focus the bulk of the film on the final 24 hours of the war, and to be efficient with our explanation in order to get us there quickly.
It’s for this reason that, as you noted, many of our primary subjects are military observers. It was the role of the military in those final 24 hours that necessitated this level of testimony. I can assure you that this emphasis was not due to any abiding love of the military or its motives, or its version of or perspective on these events. It was simply because, as the men and women charged with effecting the logistics of the evacuation, they were faced in those last 24 hours with the kind of split-decision moral questions that you and your follow [sic] CIA and State Department officers had been struggling with for months. And while we’d love to have had the time and resources to tell this story in a far more in-depth and extensive manner, the length of the film and the resources we had to make it dictated what we could include.
Concerning Kissinger, I considered long and hard all the questions and concerns you raised, and understand his complicated and contentious place in history. The conclusion I reached was that it was important to have a first-person voice from inside the White House, and that the film we were making wasn’t about who did or did not deserve the blame for these events, but rather what happened once the events became inevitable, and how men react when faced with an inevitable tragedy and specific orders to stand by as it occurs. My impression is that all parties to these events could shoulder some portion of the blame. Having screened the film for almost a year, I’m confident that audiences, critics, and historians are according both Martin and Kissinger an appropriate share of the blame, that audiences have understood the undercurrents or subtexts of what Kissinger and Martin say and do on-screen, and that the film’s portrayal of them doesn’t distort the record in any particular direction. Again, our goal was simply to tell a set of human stories that would, if anything, begin conversations about how we created the mess, not end them.
We did, based on the reactions of some historians, attempt to clarify what they saw as omissions that could potentially create misinterpretations that could rise to level of factual error.
Your point about recognition is well-taken.
Thanks and hope this finds you well.
My second critique of “The Last Days of Vietnam, emailed December 18, 2014, updated as an “open letter,” January 8, 2015:
Thanks for responding to my comments about your documentary, “The Last Days in Vietnam,” which I originally forwarded to your producer, Keven McAlester, on October 22.
Though you do not mention it in your response, I am not the only eyewitness to the fall of Saigon who has challenged the objectivity and balance of what you have put on screen. A letter relayed to you by Jim Laurie, the former NBC News correspondent who was on hand for the evacuation and who appeared in your film as I did, criticizes “the way it presents some of the background.”
The letter was written by former Baltimore Sun correspondent, Arnold Isaacs, and endorsed by other reporters stationed in Vietnam during the tragedy of 1975.
The letter faults you for conveying the impression that the South Vietnamese had no hand in breaching the Kissinger-brokered ceasefire agreement when “by any fair examination of events, the South and the North were equally to blame.”
You are criticized for presenting the Ford administration’s final aid proposal for Saigon as offering “a genuine chance to rescue South Vietnam from defeat,” and Congress’ rejection of it as a betrayal of our allies.
Isaacs and his colleagues suggest “that Henry Kissinger and others would have seen it [the aid proposal] as a way to put the blame entirely on Congress for South Vietnam’s defeat and not on their own mistakes.”
The letter also points out that your use of anti-war protest footage to punctuate Kissinger’s comments about the aid package “distorts history” by lending credence to “partisan commentators” who claim that the peace movement, largely moribund by the time Saigon fell, deserves “all the blame for South Vietnam’s defeat.”
“That’s provably untrue,” Isaacs writes, “and we would be sorry to see your film reinforce the false message.
“Letting a false history take root in the public mind,” he continues, “would not just be a disservice to historical truth, but would damage public understanding of issues that are pertinent to important policy debates today.”
In a separate communication with your producers, Isaacs also urges you to make clear that the ceasefire negotiated in Paris was limited to government and Viet Cong forces in the south, leaving the underlying hostility between North and South Vietnam unresolved.
Though I learned of Isaacs’ letter only after it was circulated, it echoes some of my own themes: that you allowed your documentary to be skewed at times by politicized perspectives, that you ignored the role of the South Vietnamese in their own defeat, and that you allowed Henry Kissinger to shift the blame for what happened onto Congress.
In responding to Isaacs and his colleagues you claimed it was too late to make any major edits. You did agree, however, to make few tweaks to the existing footage.
On the matter of the last-minute aid proposal you added a largely meaningless quote from Kissinger in which he acknowledges that by the time it was put forward in 1975 “it made no big difference.”
In an apparent attempt to blunt the suggestion that you had unfairly singled out the North Vietnamese for ceasefire violations committed by both sides, you removed two written inserts that had been included in your original cut and substituted the following “cards” onscreen:
“In January 1973, the Paris Peace Accords were signed. The agreement called for a ceasefire between North and South Vietnam, and marked the withdrawal of American troops.”
“On March 10, 1975, the North Vietnamese launched a massive invasion into South Vietnam.”
Unfortunately these changes introduce still more confusion.
First, the Paris Agreement did not call for a North-South ceasefire, as Isaacs has noted, and did not “mark the withdrawal of American troops.” It marked the end of a drawdown of U.S. forces that had been going on since 1969, during which time South Vietnamese troops had been substituted for American ones and had proven incapable of overcoming their own endemic corruption and compromised leadership.
Secondly, as I pointed out in my comments to you, the North Vietnamese already had a massive presence in the South in March 1975 because they had never been obliged to remove it under the Paris accords. They had reinforced it, to be sure, and would continue to do so, but the problem was that the accords merely codified a lethal stalemate that the U.S. had been unable to alter by force.
These are not quibbles. They go to the issue of why the war ended as it did.
In the final analysis, the “peace” Kissinger negotiated, largely behind Saigon’s back, was simply a fig leaf to cover the fact that we hadn’t won the war and were leaving the South Vietnamese with a terrible bargain, one which he never fully explained to Congress, or the American people, who would have to foot the bill.
In your response to me you neither mention these edits nor offer any others.
As I noted in my remarks to you, one of my principal concerns is that you credited military officers like then Captain Stuart Herrington with accomplishments during Saigon’s death agonies that were matched or surpassed by others who were often in much greater physical danger and far more exposed to the Ambassador’s wrath and retaliation. Among those you ignored were civilian officials who suffered death or capture in their efforts to help beleaguered Vietnamese escape the country.
In answering me you attempt to rationalize this imbalance by arguing that you focused the bulk of the documentary on the final 24 hours of the war and that this justified or “necessitated” the “level of testimony” you accorded to your military interviewees. You further defend your editorial choices by arguing that military personnel were “charged with effecting the logistics of the evacuation” and “were faced in the last 24 hours with the kind of split-decision moral questions that you and your follow [sic] CIA and State Department officers had been struggling with for months.”
None of this quite rings true. Your documentary devoted considerable time to events both before and after Saigon’s “final 24 hours.” Herrington’s own covert efforts to evacuate Vietnamese took place some days beforehand, and paralleled “black ops” by CIA and State Department officers designed to accomplish the same thing, and more, in defiance of Ambassadorial orders.
What distinguished their efforts from Herrington’s – and what deserved special note – was that their “evacuees” were often high-risk relatives and employees of U.S. officials, Vietnamese who faced terrible jeopardy from the Communists. By contrast the one covert exfiltration effort Herrington describes as his own focused on admitted deserters from the South Vietnamese military desperate to escape the country. Much as I applaud Herrington’s diligence, helping such people shirk their patriotic duty doesn’t quite equate with the rescue of civilians whose only sin was having placed their faith in their American employers or benefactors.
In an interview with journalist Anne Thompson on August 24, you spoke of State Department officer Lionel Rosenblatt, who had carried out a spectacular “black op” involving truly high risk evacuees but whose heroics you ignored in your documentary in favor of military folk like Herrington.
In my interview for your film I hailed Rosenblatt and others who had similarly acquitted themselves, and later wrote to your producer urging him to contact Rosenblatt and make sure to feature the civilians who had done valiant rescue work prior to the final day, all in defiance of the ambassador’s orders. For reasons I still don’t understand, you ignored my remarks about Rosenblatt and his like and simply wrote these people off in terms of screen time.
You say that military personnel predominate in your coverage of the final day because of their role in “effecting the logistics of the evacuation.” But if that is the ticket to prominence in your film, why so little mention – the few snippets are lifted from my own interview — of the brave civilian Air America pilots, who under CIA direction literally kept the airlift going throughout the morning and early afternoon of the 29th, before the big military choppers even left flight decks offshore?
And if sacrifice alone warrants a starring role in your screenplay, why not a hint of recognition for the two U.S. Marines who died in the final bombardment of Tan Son Nhut while keeping the gates open for Vietnamese and American evacuees scrambling to the flight line?
You further justify your focus on certain military favorites by suggesting that they cornered conscience on the last day – being “faced,” as you put it in your letter to me, “with the kind of split-decision moral questions that you and your fellow State Department officers had been struggling with for months.”
Leaving aside the odd presumption of that remark, it overstates what you have put on screen.
Herrington shows up in your climactic scenes to tell us he arrived at the embassy mid-morning on the 29th, and found evacuees assembling there. Based on his sparse account of what happened as the day progressed, he did not “face the split-decision moral questions” that you assign to him. Following orders from on high, he moved Vietnamese into load lines and put them aboard choppers as they became available. He may have faced some very tough choices. But, by and large, circumstances and accident determined who got aboard which chopper and when, leaving Herrington and fellow military personnel to operate as assuredly brave and conscientious loadmasters.
Much later, just before the evacuation shut down, Herrington was ordered to abandon the 420 Vietnamese still waiting to be airlifted out. The decision he made at that point was to obey orders. I understand his reasoning, and sympathize with his agony, as I wrote in my comments to you. But a morally “split-decision” it wasn’t, since his only alternative was outright mutiny, an option that would have threatened his life and those of his fellow officers.
Among those he left behind was the Vietnamese college student, Binh Pho, featured in your documentary. According to a news account, Mr. Binh later participated in a promotional junket for your film and reportedly “forgave” Herrington for deserting him. Earnest though this gesture may have been, college students in Vietnam represented a class despised by their own uniformed countrymen and by the American military. Often they were simply privileged rich boys who had managed to avoid the killing and dying – leaving Americans to do it for them — by buying college “deferments” that kept them out of harm’s way.
Binh Pho may have been an exception, and I sincerely hope he was. But there is an irony in the fact that a Vietnamese college student becomes the final arbiter of moral dispensations in your film.
The other military interviewees who bathed in the spotlight you focused on the final day faced roughly the same choices as Herrington. Then-Pentagon official Richard Armitage, one of your prime interviewees, was essentially an accidental Good Samaritan, as I noted in my comments to you. His final mission in Vietnam was to rescue American ships and aircraft from the NVA, and he was soon confronted with the choice of repatriating thousands of Vietnamese Navy deserters and their dependents who had commandeered several of his “liberated” vessels. You might describe the choice Armitage faced as a moral “split-decision,” but I suspect he and his own naval colleagues realized that putting these Vietnamese back ashore would have been an intolerable provocation for the Communists, tantamount to a hostile landing.
Paul Jacobs, commander of the U.S.S. Kirk, who generously took aboard Vietnamese fleeing their adversaries by helicopter, likewise became an angel of mercy by necessity rather than sheer choice. While he and others aboard the U.S. evacuation fleet had to weigh the wisdom of providing safe haven for panicked Vietnamese fresh from defeat, the moral challenges implicit in this quickly gave way to command decisions from the Pentagon.
In your press interview of August 24, you spoke of “contradictions” in “source material” and eyewitness accounts about the fall of Saigon, and suggested that they explain why you had to “streamline” or omit so much. You cited, as an example, the claim made by certain interviewees that “there was nobody outside the embassy on the final day” – a claim which you later found was contradicted by archival footage. You said there was confusion about “how many people were inside the embassy” on April 29, and how they got there. You said there was uncertainty about when and where the evacuation was to start – at the airport or the embassy.
In your letter to me you made an additional point: “We did, based on the reactions of some historians, attempt to clarify what they saw as omissions that could potentially create misinterpretations that could rise to the level of factual error.”
With all due respect I’d like to know what that sentence means and who these historians are. I would also like to know who told you there was “nobody” outside the embassy the final day and that there was no way to know how Vietnamese got inside. In my own interview, and in my two books about the collapse, I addressed all of these issues at length, and even if you chose not to believe me, there were countless old Saigon embassy hands who could have given you answers in a heartbeat
Herrington claims in one of his recent press interviews that you spent seven and a half hours discussing the fall of Vietnam with him. He also told you on camera that when he arrived at the embassy on the morning of the 29th he had no idea where all the Vietnamese assembled there had come from, and never bothered to check.
He said explicitly: “There was no hiding the fact that someone had let these people into this embassy. Was it people Marine Security guards that kinda looked the other way? Was it American employees in the embassy who were doing, kinda, what we did, black ops, taking care of their own? We never got to the bottom of that, and frankly we never pursued it.”
Stuart Herrington has written his own book about the fall of Vietnam and hasn’t been reluctant to be interviewed about it as an expert. How he could be in the dark, nearly forty years hence, about what his CIA and State Department colleagues were doing that last day beggars credulity, especially since some of us have written or spoken extensively about it.
But whatever his reason, once he acknowledged his ignorance, you might have considered looking around for a better informed source to supplement his recollections. For your own reasons you didn’t.
I wish you had, on this and other issues, because the stakes go way beyond specifics, to what history can teach us.
To many vested interests, political and ideological, the fall of Vietnam has become a skirmish line in an on-going battle over how to interpret the war and its lessons. Soon after the collapse, a number of U.S. military veterans rallied around Colonel Harry Summers, a Defense Attaché officer who had been the CIA’s nemesis during my own final days in Vietnam, and joined him in fashioning a narrative of the war, and the collapse. Their accounts generally echoed Kissinger’s own claim that Congress and the antiwar movement had sold out the U.S. military in Vietnam and the Saigon regime. They refused to countenance any serious criticism of our Vietnamese allies, and any suggestion that they had been too corrupt to bear the burden we bequeathed to them. One of these revisionists told Colonel Henry Shockley, the DAO reports chief, whom I cited favorably in my recent comments to you, that to admit South Vietnam’s weakness and unworthiness would be to admit that countless U.S. military personnel had fought and died in vain. Such candor simply was unthinkable to this old soldier.
Stuart Herrington was one of Colonel Summers’ associates in Vietnam, and though I believe Herrington to be a dedicated patriot, I cannot help but suspect that he has channeled a bit of Harry Summers, who died in 1999, in his conversations with you.
Not that you would have needed any such prompting to arrive at the message you deliver in your film. Your reliance on Kissinger was surely enough.
You tell me in your recent letter that you chose to include Kissinger among your interviewees because “the film we were making wasn’t about who did or did not deserve blame for these events but rather what happened once these events became inevitable, and how men react when faced with an inevitable tragedy…”
But your solicitous questioning of Kissinger and the superficial third-party sound bites you included about supply shortages and withheld U.S. aid – and your indifference to the shortcomings of our allies – in effect tipped the narrative in one direction. Intentional or not, it wound up favoring those who blame the Vietnam debacle, and the chaos in the end, on naysayers at home, rather than appallingly bad policy, bent intelligence and an ally doomed by corruption.
I hope PBS will find a way to include other viewpoints when your documentary airs there as part of “The American Experience Series.”
Arnold Isaacs-Jim Laurie draft letter to Rory Kennedy re “The Last Days In Vietnam:”
Posted with comments on Old Hacks website 10/05/14
Dear Ms. Kennedy —
Of all the people who see the Last Days in Vietnam film, no one will watch with more sympathy and understanding than those who covered that war as journalists. Many of us witnessed the final collapse and evacuation, and quite a few have their own stories, not unlike those told in the film, of helping Vietnamese associates and friends get out of the country in the final days and hours. The story documented in the film is important and moving, and we are glad to see it reaching a wider audience. So we hope you’ll understand that the concerns we are raising in this letter are not meant to criticize the central story or basic nature of the film, but only the way it presents some of the background of those events. The changes we ask you to consider are not meant to turn it away from its central theme, or to have it go into any more historical detail than it already does. They’re suggested only in the hope that that background will be presented more accurately.
The issue that concerns us most is the contention that the events of April ’75 occurred because North Vietnam unilaterally broke the 1973 peace agreement. Whether intended or not, that is clearly the conclusion viewers are left with — as illustrated by the New York Times reviewer who wrote: “The Paris Peace Accords of 1973 had provisionally maintained the partition of Vietnam into North and South. As soon as the American forces were gone, the Communist North began to unify the country by force, sweeping quickly through Da Nang and other Southern cities and closing in on Saigon by April of 1975.” The architects of a failed policy would like nothing better than to have that version cemented into our narrative of the war, since it glosses over their own mistakes and cynical policies. But those who covered Vietnam in 1973-75 would tell you, probably to a person, that it is simply not consistent with the historical record.
This is not a matter of ideological interpretation but plain facts, which make abundantly clear that both Vietnamese sides, not just one, ignored the ceasefire and the political provisions of the Paris agreement, and the United States, pretty much from the day we got our last prisoners back, made no effort to put the agreement back on track. By any fair examination of events, the South and the North were equally to blame for the agreement’s failure. Neither ever made any concessions for a political settlement. Except in a few isolated spots during the first few weeks, neither observed any restraint in military operations. Both continued to do everything they could to impose their rule by force in every acre of territory their troops and weapons could reach. The Vietnamese people — those shown in the film and the rest of the population on both sides — paid the price.
This is more than just an academic issue. It seems likely that this movie will draw more attention to the end of the war than it has ever gotten before, and will have a major role in shaping the public’s view of those events. Letting a false history take root in the public mind (as for example with readers of the Times review) would not just be a disservice to historical truth, but would damage public understanding of issues that are pertinent to important policy debates today.
We are not suggesting that the film change focus to tell the whole complicated story or address all the details of South Vietnam’s defeat. But we would strongly urge that the relatively limited footage intended to set the scene be edited to more accurately summarize the historical facts: a peace agreement in January 1973 led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces but neither side observed the ceasefire provisions or took any steps toward a political settlement. Full-scale fighting continued for another two years, culminating in the final North Vietnamese offensive that overcame the South Vietnamese army and toppled the Saigon government in the spring of 1975.
We do not think any serious, non-ideological witness or historian of those years would dispute that summary.
A second issue that troubles some of us is the portrayal of the final $722 million supplemental aid request that was put forward by the Ford administration on April 10, 1975. In the film it is presented as if it represented a genuine chance to rescue South Vietnam from defeat, and that failing to pass it betrayed our commitment to an ally in its hour of greatest need.
That was of course the rhetoric of the time, but how much the rhetoric reflected anyone’s real calculation is a different question. Ford ‘s request came less than three weeks before the evacuation. South Vietnam had already lost two-thirds of its territory, along with mountains of weapons and ammunition and other military supplies and probably half or more of its military manpower. It is highly doubtful that many of Ford’s advisers really believed that any U.S. resupply effort could change the outcome at that late date. It is much more likely that everyone or nearly everyone involved recognized the aid request as a symbolic gesture of support, with no chance of helping in any practical way. It is also hard not to speculate that Henry Kissinger and others would have seen it as a way to put the blame entirely on Congress for South Vietnam’s defeat and not on their own mistakes. (That may be speculative as to Kissinger’s calculations at the time, but it is a fact that he and others have made that argument many many times in the years since the war.) We understand it may not be practical to substantially revise those segments of the film, but perhaps you would consider trimming them back so that thread of the story is not quite as prominent. The film’s story would be no less powerful with less emphasis on the aid issue.
There is one specific scene that really distorts history and that we would urge you to consider cutting altogether. That is the clip showing antiwar demonstrators, presumably included to give a visual image of the loss of American popular support for the war. Using that scene to make a point about the 1975 aid debate is misleading, however. The clip has to be from some years earlier, since big demonstrations like the one shown were pretty much over after 1971. This matters because for many years, partisan commentators have tried to put all the blame for South Vietnam’s defeat on the peace movement. That’s provably untrue, no matter what opinion one may have about the movement and its politics, and we would be sorry to see your film reinforce that false message. Although there were antiwar activists who lobbied against the later aid requests, their influence was minimal; the mass movement against the war had largely evaporated even before the Paris agreement, and played virtually no role, let alone a decisive one, in the aid decisions in 1974 and 1975.
To reiterate: we realize that the purpose of this film was not to explain the history of South Vietnam’s collapse but to present some compelling and moving human stories that took place in those final days. We don’t want to change that purpose; we applaud it. All of us knew, and some had very close ties with, Vietnamese like the ones who appear in the film — those who were officers or officials in the South Vietnamese government or who had some association with Americans. Their stories are important and redeeming and should be told. But this film will be the only thing a great many people ever see about the end of the Vietnam war, and we hope that in telling its main story, it will reflect an accurate and undistorted memory of the war and its end.
Below are some excerpted comments from our online discussions on the issues we have raised, which will further explain the reasons for our concern.
The signers of this letter are obviously speaking for themselves, no one else, but we will add this about our other colleagues as well: all of us worked very hard and at times risked our necks to write the first draft of history as truthfully as we possibly could, and we would like to see later drafts written in that spirit too.
Randomly selected press reviews, “The Last Days In Vietnam:”